Coastal Protection Act doesn't do enough for climate change, advocates say

·6 min read
Will Balser is coastal adaptation coordinator with the Ecology Action Centre. (Submitted by Will Balser - image credit)
Will Balser is coastal adaptation coordinator with the Ecology Action Centre. (Submitted by Will Balser - image credit)

As Nova Scotia nears completion of the long-awaited Coastal Protection Act, some advocates say there's a hidden part of coastal development that has been left out of the legislation.

The Coastal Protection Act regulations will set out site-specific horizontal and vertical setbacks that dictate how close private property owners can build to the coast.

But the act does not address setbacks for the septic systems and wells associated with those developments, which advocates worry could jeopardize the act's ability to safeguard the shoreline from the impacts of climate change.

"If we keep houses back to a safe elevation and distance, and not regulate the septic systems and wells, those are two very essential parts of having any kind of development," said Will Balser, coastal adaptation coordinator with the Ecology Action Centre. "By only regulating the location of the house, we're only protecting half of the actual development."

Lack of vertical setbacks a concern

In Nova Scotia, roughly 50 per cent of all homes use septic systems. But for coastal properties, the effects of climate change can compromise those systems; sea level rise and coastal erosion can make septic systems less effective, or cause them to fail altogether. Failed septic systems contaminate groundwater and coastal environments.

Wells are also vulnerable to saltwater intrusion, where ocean water mixes with groundwater.

Septic systems are currently regulated under the Environment Act, which does set horizontal setbacks from watercourses, said Michael Kofahl, staff lawyer with East Coast Environmental Law.

Moira Donovan
Moira Donovan

But in the regulations as they're currently written, he said, "there's no vertical setbacks at all, which is one really important feature of the Coastal Protection Act. That not only do you have to build a certain distance away from the coast so that you're not at risk, but you also have a certain height because if you have things like a storm surge, it doesn't just go inland, it goes up."

Kofahl said it's also concerning that mobile homes are not covered by the regulations.

Kofahl said advocates raised the issue of septic systems early on in the consultation process for the act because they're already seeing signs of the impact of failed septics on coastal environments; for years, East Coast Environmental Law has heard from people who are observing the effect of failed systems.

"After a storm, or after a hurricane, people are smelling something, and it's the septic system or septic runoff or raw sewage, that's just been washed back up onto the surface and [has] contaminated water."

'Trading issues'

Contaminated water isn't the only way septic systems can potentially impact the coastal environment; advocates worry that not addressing the regulations around septic systems could inadvertently make the problem worse.

People with coastal lots will now have to build farther from the water; for those with small properties, this could mean putting their septic, instead of the house, close to the water.

"So now you're more at risk of having saltwater in your water. Now, maybe instead of a massive storm, you just need a regular storm, and you have raw sewage in the ocean, because [the septic system] is even closer than it was before," said Kofahl. "So it's just trading issues."

Wll Balser said septic systems and wells that are situated close to the water could also require armour stone to protect them, which has its own ecological consequences.

"It's extremely expensive to implement and extremely expensive to maintain and it doesn't do your property or your neighbor's property any favours; it deflects wave energy onto their land, increasing their erosion, thus necessitating them having armour rocking. And it really shuts off that conversation between the ecosystems of the land and the ocean by literally putting a wall in between them."

Overlapping jurisdictions create confusion

Balser is also concerned that having coastal development and septic systems governed by different sets of regulations could create confusion between different levels of government.

"The way that we legislate and regulate water systems and coastal systems is very fragmented, very siloed. And very confusing for even people who work in the field," he said.

An example of this is in the Region of Queen's Municipality, which recently passed new bylaws requiring 100-foot horizontal setbacks from the shore.

"There are a few lots that are too small for anything, and with the new bylaws, they won't be able to build on.  And we had a few complaints about that. But we're trying to protect the coastline," said Deputy Mayor Kevin Muise. Muise said he's also received complaints from residents about septic systems in new coastal developments, but directed those people to the Department of Environment.

Muise said the issue of climate risks to septic systems is something the municipality will likely look into in the "near future."

In a statement, a spokesperson for the Department of Environment and Climate Change said the department understands concerns about the possible impact of coastal erosion on sea level rise on septic systems, and that it continues to review its regulatory tools with possible future impacts of climate change in mind. The statement also said the department continues to consider all perspectives in developing the regulations for the act.

Kofahl said he understands the province's desire to move forward with regulations and not introduce elements that would contribute to delays.

Nonetheless, he said there other are ways to address the impending gap in the legislation, including removing the exemption for mobile homes — which are a potential source of water contamination from compromised septic systems — and by making information publicly available on where septic systems and wells should be situated, based on the projections for sea-level rise and storm surge.

"We want to have the act actually be enforced, and I wouldn't want to see another massive delay trying to fit in the complexities of septic systems. But I think they still need to be addressed, and I think in the same timeline, because once those regulations come into force, we could potentially see all those issues coming up."

Public policy

In many coastal areas in the northeast Atlantic, septic systems are a growing climate change consideration.

New England — which has similar geology and sea-level rise risks as the Maritimes, and where half of homes are on septic systems — is already seeing impacts from sea level rise to these systems, as rising groundwater prevents them from filtering waste properly.

Christopher Kilian, with the Conservation Law Foundation, an advocacy group that has worked on septic issues, said it's a reminder of why all infrastructure — including the hidden infrastructure that deals with our waste — is prepped for climate change.

"It's past due time, that from a good engineering practice perspective, climate change risks are fully integrated into the public policy discussion. And not just for purposes of consideration, but as a basis for action. Because these issues are unfolding before our eyes, and they're just getting worse."

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